Narrative Structures, Narratives of Abuse, and Human Rights

In Lisa Tessman (ed.), Feminist Ethics and Social and Political Philosophy: Theorizing the Non- Ideal. Kluwer Academic Publishers (2009)
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This paper explores the relation between victims’ stories and normativity. As a contribution to understanding how the stories of those who have been abused or oppressed can advance moral understanding, catalyze moral innovation, and guide social change, this paper focuses on narrative as a variegated form of representation and asks whether personal narratives of victimization play any distinctive role in human rights discourse. In view of the fact that a number of prominent students of narrative build normativity into their accounts, it might seem obvious that there is a connection between victims’ stories and moral insight. However, the category of victims’ stories spans an enormous variety of texts – private diaries, memoirs written for publication, interviews with journalists or social scientists, depositions prepared by human rights workers, stories shared with like-minded activists or with support groups, stories told to medical professionals, and testimony in courts, truth commissions and asylum hearings, to mention just some of the possibilities. The different contexts of elicitation and the different rules governing expression in these sites should make us wary of ready generalizations about the nature of victims’ narratives. Moreover, I doubt that existing explications of the way in which norms figure in narratives yield satisfactory theories of the contribution victims’ stories can make to discovering and defending just policies and practices. I consider two of the most prominent accounts of the relation between narrative and normativity. For different reasons, the account Anthony Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner present in their work on narrative and law and the account Hayden White presents in his work on narrative and history fail to appreciate the capacity of victims’ stories of abuse to advance understanding of and increase respect for human rights. In defense of the value of victims’ stories, I propose an account of the relation between normativity and a salient type of victim’s narrative that seems especially resistant to integration into human rights discourse.
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